Sabbatical Reflections

We are at the end of January 2019, and I am almost three weeks into my sabbatical. I continue to represent the college at presidential gatherings, but I have begun my work on Levi Pennington’s papers and have completed one of the runs on my schedule (Maui 10K)!

I have been on campus a number of times, and when students and staff see me they always look surprised and ask, “Why are you here?” The question puzzles me, of course. The fact is that I live here, and whether I am in my office or not I certainly remain a part of the community. Ruth and I are certainly traveling, but our dog, Charlie, gets lonely if we are gone too long at one time. The reality is that we are citizens of Newberg and enjoy both the community and our friendships here.

Sabbatical is not really being “gone” but focusing on something different. Fred Gregory, the vice presidents and Melissa Terry are enabling me to focus on other things rather than the everyday work of administration at George Fox. They have taken the daily work and continue to advance the mission and, I can say at this point, their efforts have enabled me to gain some freedom from the “daily grind” to think about the mission and reflect on my own life and vision.

Pennington Research

One thing my sabbatical has allowed me to do is dig deeper into the history of our institution, and more specifically, the life of longtime president Pennington. In 1925, Pennington was asked to provide an address to the Association of Independent Colleges of Oregon that he titled, “The Place of Religion in Our Educational Program.” At the time, most of the private colleges in Oregon had some religious affiliation, and Pennington provided an understanding of the mission of the religious college in higher education. Given our 21st-century context, I was surprised by what appears to be his boldness in articulating a truly Christian vision. He summarized his comments this way …

“The aim of our religious program should be to aid our students to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ as personal Savior and Lord; to a dedication of life to the advancement of His Kingdom in the earth; to the development of spiritual knowledge and power as the body and mind develop,’till we all come to the perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” 

In addition to considering some of the Pennington archival material, I have been reading Donald McNichols’ biographical look at Pennington, entitled Portrait of a Quaker. It is an excellent analysis and provides great insight into his character and vision for George Fox, and it is where I found Pennington’s address to the colleges. When I read Pennington’s summary statement from his 1925 address, I was struck by what must have been a shared “vision” among the religious colleges at the time. Most of the independent colleges in Oregon had a deep faith commitment and church relationship: Willamette (United Methodist), Lewis & Clark (Presbyterian), Linfield (American Baptist), Pacific (Congregational Church), University of Portland (Roman Catholic) and Marylhurst (Roman Catholic). While the leaders of the independent colleges may have resonated with Pennington’s statement in 1925, with the exception of the University of Portland, they would no longer do so today. They would find a specific religious mission as described by Pennington to be antiquated and part of the history of their institutions that they had moved beyond.

Our commitment to Christ is not something we set aside in the educational process but remains at the center of everything we do. I am often reminded of C. S. Lewis’ statement: “I believe in Christ as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” Our educational work begins by understanding who we are (in Christ) and why we are here in the first place. Everything else emanates from that central commitment.

An Encouraging Testimony

Ruth and I recently traveled to Maui, where I ran the Maui 10K. During the roughly six-hour flight, Hawaiian Airlines provides a number of entertainment options to keep you busy. For a number of years I have been a fan of Hawaiian music, and I chose to watch a program that featured both interviews and performances by five noted Hawaiian musicians. I deeply enjoyed listening and became fascinated with a more recent singer, Mark Yamanaka. The pattern of the program involved hearing a song in a setting designed by the musician followed by a short dialogue on the song or musical piece. The dialogue was helpful because the music was sung in Hawaiian, and it provided the non-speaker insight into the music. Yamanaka sang each song in front of a small chapel, which I found to be a curious choice especially given our current cultural context.

As he sang songs about his family and other cultural themes, he came to one that I seemed to recognize: Ke Akua Mane E. I listened more intently, and I was sure that it sounded like the famous gospel song How Great Thou Art. My initial thought was that someone had taken the tune and put secular words to the music (since I do not speak Hawaiian). I quickly learned that this was not the case. In his interview, Yamanaka noted that the song was one that his grandmother loved and that he sang at the funeral of his grandfather. It was the How Great Thou Art I knew and had sung in church all my life! He further commented that it had become so popular that it was often requested at his concerts, and he even performed it with the Honolulu Boys Choir. As the interview progressed, it was clear that Yamanaka was a person of faith and his music reflected his commitment; his faith was not something he could or would put aside, as it was part of his life. The comments were certainly subtle but clear, and I had to keep reminding myself that I was listening to a program on a major airline in the 21st century.

Both Pennington and Yamanaka were an encouragement to me this week. As I travel through life, God places in my path the testimonies of those who are trying to be faithful to their callings in Christ. They share an understanding that what they “do” in life emanates from who they are – creations of God called to be agents in his kingdom. George Fox University does not simply equip students for a profession or further their understanding of the world; it seeks to center them in the gospel story. In so doing, we play an important part in developing the future leaders of our community who will place Christ at the center of their lives rather than on the periphery – dedicated to the advancement of Christ and his kingdom.

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